One of President Obama’s goals of his travels to Russia and the G-8 meeting in Italy this week was indirectly to undo damage done long ago by Robert Strange McNamara, whose errors in judgment colored world history for more than half of the 20th Century.
Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladmir Putin; the two governments announced they would work toward cutting back nuclear stockpiles. At the G-8 meeting, Obama went further — calling for a major non-proliferation summit next year in Washington in which as many as 30 countries would participate.
How does this relate to McNamara, who died July 6? As Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson years, he earned the dubious distinction of being father of the MIRV — multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles — which revolutionized nuclear brinksmanship and made the world a great deal more dangerous.
McNamara’s role had world-changing results, and well-noted in this Washington Post obituary by Thomas Lippman, published the same day of Obama’s trip. McNamara, late in life recognized his mistakes – and came close to acknowledging them.
McNamara sponsored development of missiles that could carry up to 14 nuclear warheads each, giving the United States the ability to strike more Soviet targets without adding missiles and the capability of launching more warheads than the Soviets could fend off. This, McNamara later acknowledged, was substantially responsible for the nuclear arms race.
“I have no question,” he said in a 1982 interview, “but that the Soviets thought we were trying to achieve a first-strike capability. We were not. We did not have it. We could not attain it. We didn’t have any thought of attaining it. But they probably thought we did.” Their response, he said, provoked a counter-response by the United States, and the cycle became self-perpetuating.
This new president wants to undo that self-perpetuating cycle, although he faces suspicion from some quarters, in part a result of a long-lasting hangover from eight years of the Bush presidency.
Obama calls his presidency a “reset.” After his meeting with Medevedev, Obama said, “The President and I agreed that the relationship between Russia and the United States has suffered from a sense of drift.”
“We resolved to reset U.S.-Russian relations so that we can cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest,” he added.
Obama did get some good reviews for his incipient effort. The British newspaper The Independent said:
The U.S.-led initiative could pave the way for the world to warn Iran and North Korea that they would be treated as “pariah states” unless they stop developing nuclear weapons. The burden of proof would be on countries that are not yet members of the nuclear club to show they had not breached the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, raising the prospect of attempts to send weapons inspectors in if they refused to comply.
This all has to do with international cooperation and a pragmatic approach, breaking with years of arrogance and an unwillingness to negotiate. The goal is to defuse the drive to war: If you’re talking, you’re not fighting.
War was what McNamara was about. As early as World War II, he was close by when Gen. Curtis LeMay ordered the firebombing of Tokyo — as he famously said, “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.” Late in life, he also saw his own errors in Vietnam and beyond. During the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, we came closer than ever to what became known as MAD — mutually assured destruction.
McNamara was on the front line, facing down the Soviet Union. Again, quoting the Washington Post obit:
McNamara wrote in a Newsweek essay about the crisis that “as I left President Kennedy’s office to return to the Pentagon, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night” — so great was the threat of nuclear war.
– Peter Eisner